Sunday, February 9, 2014

Birding Site Guide: San Diego River Mouth

Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit at San Diego River Mouth, January 12, 2014. Greg Gillson.
The mouth of the San Diego River empties into the Pacific Ocean between the Mission Beach and Ocean Beach neighborhoods of San Diego, next to Sea World and Mission Bay. Mudflats are uncovered at low tide and numbers of ducks and waders feed then. The stage of tides will make a difference in both the number of birds present and how close they are. I don't have enough direct experience here, but recommend a falling tide, between any extremes. During high tide there may be no mudflats, and during low tide too much exposed mud too far from the shores.

Both sides of the river are accessible and birding is good. The south side walking/bike path accessed at Robb Field is more crowded and starts closer to the beach; the north side (Old Sea World Drive) looks into the sun but can be driven or walked, allowing you to bird from your vehicle more upstream than Robb Field.

South Side: Robb Field:
Getting there: Take I-8 to its western end about a mile west of the I-5 intersection. Turn left onto Sunset Cliffs Blvd, stay right to remain on Sunset Cliffs Blvd for 0.4 miles. Take the 1st right onto W Point Loma Blvd. Take the 1st right into Robb Field and park closest to the river (#1 on map). Parking: Free parking lot. Hours: Dawn to dusk. Map navigation: Robb Field Recreation Center, 2525 Bacon St, San Diego, CA 92107

North Side: Old Sea World Drive:
Getting there: Take the Sea World Dr/Tecolote Rd exit off I-5 about 1/2 mile north of the I-8 intersection. Turn left on Sea World Dr/Tecolote Rd and follow Sea World Dr almost a mile. Turn left at the light on Mission Bay Pwky. Turn right onto Old Sea World Dr (#3 on map). Parking: Park freely along the shoulder of Old Sea World Drive. It is a dead end, multi-use road, so you can pull over and bird from your vehicle or pop out and set up your scope. Hours: Dawn to dusk. Map navigation: Mission Bay Pwky & Old Sea World Dr, San Diego, CA 92109

San Diego birding site guide

Robb Field

Where to bird: From the Robb Field parking area (#1 on map) the great mudflats are just over the dike. Such wonderful birding! Shorebirds, herons, ducks. What's this? No! Unfortunately, this is also the Ocean Beach Dog Beach. So expect dogs and their owners running on the beach and wading into the best bird areas. Most of the birds are used to it, but they invariably move out further from the edges and shores and are harder to view.

From here, then, walk along the bike path upstream. It is about 3/4 miles to the Mission Bay Bridge where I turned back on January 12th. I spent just over 1-1/2 hours photographing and going slow. I found 38 species, 30 of them various water birds. If I had spent another hour and continued farther, another mile toward the I-5 bridges (#2 on map), the deep water along the rock edges would have given way to shallows with weedy edges and more mudflats where I may have been able to find gallinules and rails... and break out of the coastal fog. eBird lists 195 species for this area, so birding continues to be good all year.

San Diego River Mouth
From Robb Field looking north across the tidal mud flats on a foggy morning.
San Diego River Mouth
From Robb Field looking east up the river.

Old Sea World Drive

Where to bird: Get on to Old Sea World Drive from Sea World Drive at the light at Mission Bay Parkway (#3 on the map). This road parallels the river channel for almost a mile to the Mission Bay bridge (#4 on the map) before vehicles are no longer permitted. You will share this road with joggers, dog walkers, and many bicyclists. The best tactic may be to drive to the end and turn around, driving slowly along the dike and stopping every couple of hundred feet to park and scan the shoreline.

This section of the river has many Little Blue Herons. I found 9 on my January 12 visit. American Avocets and Marbled Godwits winter in good numbers. I spent 1-1/4 hours here, photographing birds on January 12. I think that's about as long as it needs (in December I spent 50 minutes). There is a fenced off area for nesting Least Terns. So a visit in later spring and summer (May to August) would likely pick up a few of these endangered birds. But judging from the few sightings and low numbers listed in eBird in recent years, there are likely better areas to find these terns.

San Diego River Mouth
Old Sea World Dr looking southeast.
San Diego River Mouth
Old Sea World Dr looking west.
Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron at San Diego River Mouth, January 12, 2014. Greg Gillson.

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